As I’ve written about, Kyrgyzstan surprised me in any number of ways, starting with the fact that I visited at all. As it turns out, countries like Kyrgyzstan are quickly making their way onto the travel lists of people from around the world, and with good reason. As I learned on my trip to the country, there is so much to see and do that it would take months to enjoy all of it. I think though that I managed to participate in a nice range of experiences, some expected and others a complete surprise. Today I want to show what I think makes visiting Kyrgyzstan so much fun by highlighting just some of those many experiences I bet you didn’t know you could enjoy when visiting this fascinating Central Asian country.
Watching a Dead Goat Polo Match
Attending a special ethno-festival on the banks of Lake Issyk-Kul was one of those rare occasions when I had so much to say that I didn’t know where to start. The daylong event shared some of the best aspects of traditional culture in Kyrgyzstan. Dancers, story tellers, athletes and cooks all gathered in a fun and friendly sharing of their heritage. One of the more interesting aspects of the day was watching the traditional sporting events, including one of the most unusual sports on the planet – dead goat polo. Otherwise known as Kok Boru, this very unusual activity started as a way to practice for raids on neighboring villages, but today is a fun and important aspect of the Kyrgyz nomadic identity. It’s actually a lot like watching a soccer match, two teams square off and try to capture the dead goat and take it to their goal on the opposite end of the field. Played on horseback, this is an intense sport to watch and for the riders a dangerous one. It’s also oddly enjoyable as a spectator and I quickly found myself cheering on my favorite team.
Karakol Food Tour
Thanks in large part to its unique position along the Silk Road, traders from around the known world passed through the country over the centuries, bringing with them different spices and ingredients, recipes and techniques and infusing the region with a new way to enjoy food. The tour, led by a local, take guests through the successive waves of immigration to the region, from those early traders to the 19th century Russians. Dishes such as Lagman and Ashlyan-Fu are enjoyed but, more importantly, we learned why these dishes are so important to daily life in Karakol. Why people choose to eat them so regularly and, of course, the best places in town to find them. The Karakol food crawl was my favorite experience in Karakol not just because everything was so delicious, but because it was a truly immersive way to learn more about this fascinating part of the country.
Sleeping in a Yurt
I’m not a camper by nature and roughing it for me usually entails a hotel without AC, but I think it’s practically criminal for any traveler to visit Kyrgyzstan and NOT spend at least one night in a yurt. The people in this part of the world were nomadic for most of their history and at the center of that existence was their home, the yurt. Even Kyrgyzstan’s flag pays homage to this history with the design at the center of the yurt featured prominently on the national standard. For me though, spending the night along the pristine waters of Lake Issyk-Kul, listening to the waves lap up on shore as I slept in my yurt was just something I needed to do. I’d spent the week prior learning everything I could about this amazing country, but I needed that time getting closer to it in this very unique way so that I could walk away not just knowing, but understanding.
Learning How to Make Plov
To understand the travel experience in Kyrgyzstan, it’s also important to understand the role that food plays in the local culture. Food is important in Kyrgyzstan, as it is in many countries, but for me the cuisine was honestly one of the highlights of the experience. Like most people, I really didn’t know what to expect but almost immediately I was won over by their delicious traditional dishes. As an affirmed carnivore I fit in well there, but one meal in particular was special, the night I learned how to make plov. My Kyrgyz friends may not like to hear this, but plov is actually an important dish throughout Central Asia, and forms the basis of the diets for millions of people. It’s also a simple but hearty dish made from meat that is fried, boiled and steamed with yellow carrots, spices, garlic and then cooked rice. Served as a concoction, it’s tasty and definitely filling. While in Osh I joined a Plov Dinner Tour where we were invited by our guide into his home to help make a fresh batch. It was fun, educational and definitely delicious and was one of the highlights of my time in Kyrgyzstan.
Haggling at a Bazaar
The largest and probably oldest outdoor marketplace in Central Asia, the so-called Silk Road Bazaar in Osh isn’t just a place to buy anything, it’s a part of world history. For more than 2,000 years people have been buying and selling anything you can imagine on this same spot, originally an important stop along the famed Silk Road. I can only imagine the history that has passed through these narrow aisles, traders from around the world making the trek from China to the Mediterranean. Entering the bazaar early in the morning, it was still slow by bazaar standards, giving me the perfect opportunity to wander aimlessly. Sure, the goods for sale were interesting, but even better was the people watching. Dressed in traditional Kyrgyz attire, the dresses and hats were gorgeous, adding to the overall visual overload of color and design. Clothes to jewelry to meats and vegetables to modern day electronics, it really is a place to find whatever it is you’re looking for. But for me, it was about meeting Osh and Kyrgyzstan for the first time, getting to know the culture and history of what really is a fascinating country.
Spending Time in Bishkek
Surprisingly enough, there’s actually a lot to see and do in Bishkek. More than that though, Bishkek was unlike any other part of the country I visited during my 10-days of exploration. Both Osh and Karakol looked like I had imagined. Some parts of the cities had been neglected, there were a lot of Soviet era-statues around and both cities seemed to be a mix of old and new. Bishkek though really is a gleaming capital city, and wandering through the leafy green parks I was more reminded of Europe than Central Asia. From museums to monuments or just quiet corners of the city, there’s not only a lot to see and do in Bishkek, there are also many reasons to love exploring the city.
Spending Lots of Time Enjoying Nature
Before leaving on my trip, Instagram taught me that Kyrgyzstan did indeed have some incredible landscapes to enjoy. But of course, nothing really prepares you for the reality of the experience, which was honestly overwhelming in the best possible sense of the word. Not only is the natural beauty of Kyrgyzstan unexpected and undeniably gorgeous, it’s also incredibly varied. Within a view hours you can admire alpine meadows reminiscent of Austria, desert beauty that looks as if it was plucked from the American Southwest and even lake views that feel more like being on the shores of a great sea. It’s remarkable and I’ve never experienced anything quite like it before. The chance to go back and see even more of these natural treasures is perhaps what motivates me the most to return, to explore even more and to see what else is there waiting to be discovered.
This trip was made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.